Iraq: The Continuing Search For Vengeance

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February 7, 2017: While it may take another few months to take west Mosul there is little doubt that ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) will lose control of the city sooner rather than later. There is much evidence to back this up. For one thing inside Mosul a Syrian ISIL leader, Abu Abdullah al Shami, has split from ISIL founder Abu Bakr al Baghdadi and potentially triggered a civil war within the organization (or at least within west Mosul). Baghdadi is reported (but not confirmed) to have been killed or badly wounded in a recent airstrike. Yet most of the ISIL men in and around Mosul continue fighting despite squabbling leaders or no leaders at all. This is particularly true with all (over a third) of the ISIL men who are not from Iraq or Syria and stand out when they speak because of their accent, dialect and mannerisms. Some, like the Chechens (from the Caucasus) or Asians are visibly not Arabs. A number of these foreign fighters were cut off in east Mosul during the ISIL retreat to the west bank and are the core of small groups of ISIL gunmen who continue to fight in east Mosul. Many of the Arab ISIL fighters stranded in east Mosul can join the refugees, although some of them still have pistols, grenades or other weapons. But the foreigners have no choice but to fight. Surrender is not an option.

Civilians continue to escape ISIL controlled west Mosul and report that the Islamic terrorists appear disorganized and unsure of what to do next. Yet many ISIL men continue to construct defenses. This includes having buildings modified for combat. This involves things like smashing walls between buildings so ISIL men can move around without going outside. ISIL continues to install roadside bombs and booby traps inside buildings. These explosive devices have become typical of any urban area ISIL defends. The government estimates that it will cost them over $50 million dollars to clear all these explosive devices out of Mosul after ISIL is gone.

Although ISIL has abandoned east Mosul and retreated across the Tigris River they made it clear that resistance on the west side of the river would be more brutal and deadly. Unlike the ISIL forces in east Mosul, those in the western half of the city are surrounded. As Iraqi forces advanced to the east bank of the Tigris they found all the bridges destroyed. Iraqi commanders estimate they killed 3,500 ISIL men taking the east half of the city and while fighting west of Mosul in order to surround west Mosul. ISIL is not completely sealed off in west Mosul but all the roads out are now controlled by government forces. Western military advisors generally agree about the heavy losses ISIL has suffered so far but won’t provide any of their own casualty estimates. The Western intel and military advisers also agree with Iraqi claims that the final advance to the Tigris river was made possible by the air campaign and the Western emphasis on finding and attacking ISIL leadership whenever possible. Thus the Iraqis found that ISIL resistance collapsed in late January because nearly all the ISIL commanders in east Mosul had died, either from their custom of leading from the front line or because of smart bomb attacks on their headquarters. The losses included a number of very senior ISIL commanders and technical experts (like bomb builders). Most ISIL fighters are inexperienced and have little military training. Without close supervision they get themselves killed quickly or desert. Yet the troops now on the east bank of the Tigris are encountering fire, and occasional raids, from trained and disciplined ISIL fighters on the opposite bank. If you are not dismayed by certain death, then many small groups of ISIL men operating independently and attacking whoever or whatever they can is an expected and effective strategy. It won’t provide any possibility to win, but it will force the government troops to fight if they want to be rid of the ISIL menace. One side effect of this is more callous treatment of ISIL fighters. Iraqi troops will leave the bodies of ISIL fighters in the street to rot and often eaten by dogs. Not being buried quickly and getting eaten by wild animals (especially dogs) is considered a great disgrace by devout Moslems. So Iraqi troops and civilians take and circulate cell phone photos of this in order to rub it in.

The Second Pause

The attack force has halted at the east bank of the Tigris River giving the troops a rest and bringing up supplies and reinforcements as well as time for clearing explosive devices and rubble blocking roads. This is the second halt in the offensive, which began in mid-October. The advance was resumed in mid-December and that one ended when ISIL was driven from Mosul east of the Tigris River. The offensive will resume in about a week or so with troops crossing the river in boats (or helicopters) to establish an enclave on the west bank so combat engineers to create temporary bridges over the Tigris.

Most Iraqis accept these time consuming tactics because it is understood this approach also keeps civilian casualties down and keeps the Iran backed Shia militias out of the fighting. That prevents more atrocities against non-Shia civilians in general and Iraqi Sunnis in particular. More importantly it shows Iran that Iraq can take care of this without a lot of Iranian help. While over half of Iraqis are Shia they do not want the country dominated by Shia (but non-Arab) Iran. As a result many of the Iran backed Shia militias have proved reliable (in their treatment of non-Shia civilians) when assigned to police and protect areas ISIL had recently been driven from. Sunni civilians are often warned by ISIL that Shia militias will kill them, rape the women and generally misbehave. But most of the Shia militiamen bring with them needed food and medical aid and generally behave well. Yet the government knows there are violently pro-Iran Shia Iraqis in some of these militias so the risk of bad behavior is always there. Perhaps to avoid that the government announced that some Iraqi Shia militias would be allowed to cross into Syria to aid in the effort to drive ISIL out of eastern Syria.

Iranians are also present among the several thousand foreign troops, all of them advisors or specialists (like American air control, intelligence or communications specialists) working with the 30,000 Iraqis fighting to drive ISIL out of Mosul. There are over a thousand Iranians providing training, advisory and support assistance to the pro-Iran Shia militias. The Iraqi government fears that these IRGC advisors and trainers are secretly building pro-Iran armed militias in Iraq. That’s simply not true because the IRGC is quite open about what they are doing to encourage Iraqi Shia to organize armed groups so they can work with Iran someday to impose the same kind of religious dictatorship in Iraq that has existed in Iran since the 1980s.

The Wild West

In Anbar province (between Baghdad and the Syrian border) government forces are still fighting a small number of ISIL gunmen near the Syrian border. Apparently ISIL has concluded that they have lost Anbar and are using roadside bombs and landmines to make the government advance as costly as possible. Another impediment to the advance are the large number of refugees who fled earlier fighting in eastern Anbar. These civilians cannot be ignored because some are kin to members of the local pro-government tribal militias assisting the army and police. There is no great rush because the remaining ISIL men in Anbar have nowhere to go but the ISIL base areas in eastern Syria. Most (about 80 percent) of the half million Anbar civilians who fled ISIL since 2013 have returned home by now. The remainder are waiting for ISIL to be driven from the Syrian border area and for the mines and other explosive devices to be removed from residential areas where they live.

Elsewhere in Anbar a growing number of fleeing ISIL men are seeking safety in Jordan. One reason for this is the continuing (and unsuccessful) efforts by ISIL to establish a presence in Jordan. The Jordanians have recently reinforced their border security with more troops and more support for tribal militias along the Iraq border. While the border with Saudi Arabia is a lot longer few ISIL men head in that direction because the Saudi border is even more heavily defended and, unlike Jordan, you lose the option to head for Syria (which shares a border with Jordan but not Saudi Arabia.)

The Frenemy Around Us

Iran boasts of victories in Syria, Yemen and Iraq, alliances with Turkey, China and Russia to oppose the West plus the end of sanctions has not had the desired effect on most Iranians. Opinion surveys showed that 90 percent of Iranians backed the Syrian operations in 2015 but that dropped to 73 percent in 2016 and is now less than 30 percent. There were similar declines regarding Iranian support for Hezbollah and Shia militias in Lebanon, Syria. Yemen and Iraq. Most Iranians are more concerned with own circumstances, which have not improved much despite all the government boasting of victories elsewhere. Despite this Iran has maintained its military presence in Iraq, even if it causes friction with new allies like Turkey.

The Enemy Is Us

Foreign aid and government refugee personnel agree that the civilians getting out of Mosul are accurately describing the nasty mood of the Mosul population when it comes to the Iraqi government. Nearly everyone hates ISIL but many Mosul natives remember that it was government corruption and incompetence that enabled ISIL to so easily grab control of the city in mid-2014. The government says it is aware of the problem and plans to do better with rebuilding the city. That is hardly a sure thing because Iraq has long been one of the most corrupt nations in the region. This results in much of the foreign aid being stolen and not getting to the people it was intended for. This is not surprising as Iraq was recently rated as one of the most corrupt (166th out of 176 countries) nation in the world for 2016. Somalia was rated the most corrupt nations in the world and has held that dubious distinction for a decade. Corruption in the Transparency International Corruption Perception Index is measured on a 1 (most corrupt) to 100 (not corrupt) scale. The most corrupt nations (usually North Korea, Somalia or, since 2011, South Sudan) have a rating of under fifteen while of the least corrupt (usually Denmark) is often 90 or higher. The current Iraq score is 17 compared to 13 for Syria, 41 for Turkey, 46 for Saudi Arabia, 48 for Jordan, 28 for Lebanon, 29 for Iran, 66 for the UAE (United Arab Emirates), 64 for Israel, 25 for Afghanistan. 32 for Pakistan, 40 for India, 29 for Russia, 40 for China, 11 for South Sudan, 12 for North Korea, 72 for Japan and 74 for the United States. A lower corruption score is common with nations in economic trouble. African nations are the most corrupt, followed by Middle Eastern ones. Fixing an existing culture of corruption has proved a most difficult challenge.

February 5, 2017: Troops south of Mosul have been reinforced by units equipped with tanks and other armored vehicles.

February 4, 2017: In the north (Tal Afar, between Mosul and Syria) another to IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps) officer was killed while advising (or leading) Iraqi Shia militiamen. Iran has sent hundreds of IRGC officers, most of them from the Quds Force (similar to the U.S. Special Forces, but which specializes in supporting Islamic terrorists not fighting them). Dozens of senior IRGC officers have been killed in Syria and Iraq since 2012.

February 3, 2017: In the north (Salahaddin province, which is between Baghdad and Mosul) an airstrike killed another senior ISIL leaders, known as Abu Suhaib. Two other ISIL men were wounded in the attack on Mutaibija which has long been an ISIL base area.

February 2, 2017: In January 382 civilians and 21 police were killed by Islamic terrorist related activities. The civilian deaths were down about one percent from December. Nearly half (49 percent) of the civilian deaths were in or near Mosul (Nineveh province), Baghdad suffered 33 percent of the dead while Salahaddin province (between Baghdad and Mosul) 8 percent and western Iraq (Anbar province) six percent. Most of the deaths in Nineveh province were related to the effort to drive ISIL out of Mosul. Baghdad was usually where most civilian deaths took place and it still a major target for suicide bombing efforts, usually in Shia neighborhoods. ISIL has largely been driven out of Anbar in the last year but because Anbar has a lengthy Syrian border and is south of Nineveh province, it remains active. As usual there was few if any civilian deaths in the Kurdish north or the Shia dominated south (Basra).

Data on military losses stopped being provided in December. This apparently had to do with fear of how bad it would be for morale (and the prospects of reelection for politicians) if the extent (higher than expected) military losses have been since late 2016, when the offensive against ISIL went into high gear. The government did continue to report civilian losses. For 2016 total civilian deaths were 6,878, which was less than 2015. In early December it was revealed that terrorism related deaths rose in November, especially for the security forces. Overall losses in November were 2,885 dead which was 61 percent more than October. Most of the 1,959 November deaths among soldiers, police and militia were from the fighting in and around Mosul. These losses were more than triple security forces deaths in October, when there 1,792 Iraqi deaths (civilian and security forces) from terrorist (mainly ISIL inspired) violence. The government underestimated the public outcry over the losses among military personnel involved in the Mosul campaign. The UN, which has long compiled government and other sources of casualty data, now says those numbers were “unverified” and no more would be released until later. The October deaths were up 79 percent over the 1,003 lost in September. That in turn was up more than 45 percent over August. Casualties in Anbar were not available for September nor were the growing losses in ISIL controlled Mosul (both civilian and ISIL members). Thus the actual September deaths are probably 1,800 or more. Up until August 2016 (when 691 died) losses were relatively low. In July to 759 died, in June 662 and May had 867 dead. Before that April had 741 dead, March 1,119, February 670 and January 2016 it was 849. Civilians accounted for half or more of the dead because ISIL has been losing on the battlefield and concentrating on terror attacks against civilians, mainly in Baghdad. That’s where most of the civilian deaths occur and most of the dead there are Shia civilians. Total deaths for this year were expected to be 10-20 percent lower than the 13,400 in 2015 and continue the downward trend after the last peak (15,600) in 2014. The 2016 decline appears likely to be closer to ten percent than 20 percent. Until 2013 when 8,900 died, the Islamic terrorist problem seemed under control. It wasn’t and since 2014 it has been an uphill struggle. While 2015 was 14 percent less deadly than 2014 both years were much less than the worst year. That was 2007 when nearly 18,000 died. Then as now the main cause of the mayhem and murder was Sunni fanatics who want to run the country as a Sunni dictatorship.

February 1, 2017: In the north, outside of Mosul, Abu Abdullah, a senior (his work was well known) ISIL bomb builder died while the roadside bomb he was installing went off prematurely. His assistant died as well.

January 29, 2017: In the north (Nineveh Province, which Mosul is also in) the chief (or at least most well-known) ISIL executioner, known only by his nickname “Abu Sayyaf” (Sword of Islam) was ambushed by unknown attackers and killed, apparently with a knife. Cell phone photos of the body were posted online. Several of Abu Sayyaf’s companions were also killed. This particular had appeared in many videos executing (usually via beheading) people in Mosul. Because of that he was much hated, which is apparently the main reason his real name was kept secret.

January 25, 2017: The offensive to take Mosul from ISIL is 100 days old and about 60 percent of the city has been liberated. The American decapitation (going after key people) campaign has killed 15 known ISIL leaders in that time while the ground fighting left over 3,000 ISIL fighters dead. The Iraqi government declared all of Mosul east of the Tigris liberated but would not report how many of the attackers were killed in the effort.

January 23, 2017: The government ordered another investigation of pro-Iran Iraqi Shia militias committing crimes after they were sent to help deal with security in areas ISIL had been driven from. This time the problems were in and around Mosul. The same thing happened in late 2016 when these militias were doing similar work in Anbar province. The government tried to avoid in Baghdad what happened in Anbar. Despite that there were some ugly side effects once the Shia militias showed up. Many Iranian and Iraqi Shia believe in revenge against real or suspected supporters of Sunni Islamic terrorists who continue to slaughter Shia civilians in Iraq, especially those visiting Shia religious shrives during Shia religious holidays. The government said it would control the murderous tendencies of the Shia militias in Anbar but that control was not tight enough and there were a few incidents. The government was forced to publicly admit the problem existed and prosecute some of the worst offenders. Despite efforts to eliminate the problem, the Shia militias again were too enthusiastic (and brutal) as they dealt with ISIL supporters and collaborators. ISIL tends to kill any Shia they come across so the Shia militias knew that anyone suspected of working with or for ISIL was Sunni and probably also a fan of killing Shia whenever possible.

The violent Shia militia are also causing problems with Turkey because Iraq is using Shia militias to provide security in areas occupied by Iraqis who are ethnic Turks. In late 2016 ISIL lost control of the city of Tal Afar, which is west of Mosul and on the Syrian border. ISIL had occupied Tal Afar since late June 2014 and it was a key transit point for anyone or anything moving to or from Mosul and Syria. Until 2007 Tal Afar was mainly a Turkoman (Turkish) town with large Sunni and Shia Arab minorities. Between 2003 and 2007 al Qaeda terrorized the Turkomen (for not being Arab although they are Sunni), murdered the Shia and used the town as a base for bringing in foreign recruits via Syria. Back then the Shia rulers of Syria (the Assad clan) were willing to tolerate Sunni Islamic terrorists as long as they were just passing through and behaving themselves as they did. Tal Afar is still important to Sunni Islamic terrorists (ISIL) in Iraq because the city controls the main road from Mosul to Raqqa (the ISIL capital in eastern Syria). The battle for Tal Afar eventually brought in more and more Iran-backed Shia militia. This happened despite Iraqis telling Turkey that only Iraqi army troops would be allowed in the city itself. These Shia militias are also helping to seal the border. With the main road from Mosul to Raqqa now blocked it is more difficult but not impossible to travel between Syria and Mosul. Most of the senior ISIL personnel and their families have already left Mosul but those remaining face a longer, and more dangerous, journey if they decide to head for Raqqa. Meanwhile the Turks keep getting complaints (and often photographic evidence) on going violence against Turkomen by Shia militia.

The government has also promised to keep the Shia militias out of Syria, despite pledges by some militia leaders that they would enter Syria in their continuing search for revenge.

January 20, 2017: In the north, outside Mosul, an airstrike killed Abbas Suleiman Ismail Al Haider, the ISIL head of foreign recruiting. Also killed were four of his associates.

January 14, 2017: In the Kurdish north (Metina, near the Turkish border) Turkish special operations located a PKK base and called in airstrikes overnight that killed at least 57 PKK members. The special operations troops then helped the air reconnaissance confirm the damage done. The PKK resumed their war with Turkey in July 2015 and since then some 10,000 PKK members and supporters have been killed, captured, arrested or surrendered. Some 1,100 Turkish security forces and civilians have died as well.

 

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